A hands-free dog leash for multiple dogs. Diapers with improved wetness sensors. A new way to preserve wine. Cryptocurrency. A backpack with a built-in bottle warmer and cooler.
The ideas that rise from dozens of little huddles in the student union at Cal State Fullerton every October are as eclectic as they are passionate. The annual Fast Pitch competition invites high school and college entrepreneurs to pitch investors and business owners on their moneymaking ideas. The event is free, open to the public, and takes place from 1 to 4 p.m. on Oct. 27.
The contest is part of the popular entrepreneurship major at Cal State Fullerton, which also offers two incubator startup locations in Placentia and Irvine aimed to help entrepreneurs take their concepts from idea to revenue.
The 17-year-old entrepreneurship program has, by volumes, more volunteers than any similar program in the nation: More than 600 county business owners, lawyers, and marketeers donate their time.
Orange County shares characteristics with Silicon Valley and Boston, says John Bradley Jackson, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship. “We’ve got the academic institutions, we’ve got the infrastructure, the law firms, the investors. Except we’re different—we’re more demographically diverse. Also unique to Orange County is that we have a very high level of family business.”
The ideas that come out of Fast Pitch are also more diverse, more geared toward consumer goods and services than strictly technology.
The Fast Pitch competition opens just after lunch with the Bullpen, where hundreds of students swarm around the voluminous Titan Student Union pitching their ideas in 60 seconds or less to as many judges as possible. It’s chaotic, spectator-unfriendly, and something of an accounting nightmare. There are queues at each table, and not every student gets to present to the same number of judges. Only five college students are selected to go on to the final round, as well as five younger entrepreneurs.
“I was super nervous the first two or three tables,” says Daniel Cazares, 23, aligning his blue necktie in the center of his white button-down shirt. Cazares is pitching Good Neighbor, a barcode-type sticker for cars that can work as a programmable parking pass and a way to summon help in emergencies. “With each new judge, you tweak things here and there. Before I knew it, I was just jumping from table to table, and I wasn’t even nervous anymore.”
Cazares, who double-majored in entrepreneurship and general management at Cal State Fullerton, is helping to take his family’s 25-year-old jewelry business online, but he constantly dreams of inventing products. “Starting off, everyone thought Uber was a crazy idea,” he reminds us.
By about 2:30 p.m., the candidates are winnowed down. Cazares moves on, and Savannah Gutierrez, a senior at Placentia’s El Dorado High School, is shocked to find she has advanced, too. Only a week earlier, she came up with her product idea to fulfill a requirement in her high school economics class, and now she’s presenting in the winning round.
Waiting for her turn onstage, Gutierrez taps her peep-toe pump, straightens her pink lace blouse, and takes a deep breath.
“I don’t do this,” she says. “This is not me. I don’t get onstage and get in front of anyone.”
But suddenly there she is, onstage, her mom and brother sitting nervously in the auditorium. And she’s killing it.
She leans into the mic. “Did you know that 18 percent of people don’t wash their hands after going to the restroom?” she asks. The room quiets. She presents her idea, a hands-free, auto-sensor doorknob, and is quickly grilled by judges: “How are you going to roll this out?” “How will you market this?” Gutierrez winds up taking second place in the high school division.
While the students do not receive investment capital from the contest, they do get modest cash prizes and bragging rights, as well as the chance to polish their ideas with free expert help.
The winners are often chosen by gut feeling, Jackson says. “It’s a very mammalian thing. It’s a human thing, where energy and a big smile and enthusiasm help a lot. I participate in pitch events with angel investors, and I’ve got to tell you, those characteristics help sell the idea.”
As I listen to the pitches of the last few finalists, I realize why I haven’t looked at the clock once during this whole hour. It’s not the wild ideas. Nor the gotcha moments as the judges try to drill down on some of the inventions. Rather, I’m attracted to the energy of the dream, the passion of the pitchers.
There’s a loopy optimism involved, a quality I have found pervasive throughout this county—an almost delusional belief that things will work out for the best. As many have found, the distance between a great pitch and a million bucks is very short, indeed, in a place like Orange County.